Pyrrhus of Epirus

Pyrrhus was king of the Greek tribe of Molossians in Epirus by hereditary right, but for most of his life he struggled with rival claimants in a collateral line. He was related to Olympias, mother of *Alexander the Great, and attempted to equal or rival Alexander as a world conqueror.

At the age of seventeen, while temporarily out of power in Epirus, he joined with *Demetrius I Poliorcetes and was with him at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 and was later placed in command of various Greek holdings by him.

He later transferred his allegiance to *Ptolemy I. When *Cassander died in 297, Pyrrhus was called to aid one of his sons against his brother, as was Demetrius. Demetrius murdered the young man and proclaimed himself king of Macedonia, a position that Pyrrhus also coveted.

In 286 he joined with Lysimachus and Ptolemy to drive Demetrius from Macedonia and agreed to share rule of Macedonia with Lysimachus. He was, however, driven out by Lysimachus in 283 after the death of Demetrius in Asia. While frequently in conflict with Antigonus II Gonatas, son of Demetrius, Pyrrhus was looking for new opportunities and found one in a request for aid from the city of Tarentum in south Italy, which had entered a war with Rome.

Pyrrhus is most famous for his war against the Romans (282-274), in which he won several battles but at great cost in casualties, which he could not easily replace.

On being congratulated by his staff for another victory, he is said to have remarked, “One more such victory and I am finished”—hence the term “Pyrrhic victory.”

He removed most of his forces to Sicily to respond to requests for help, and to seek further conquests, but was ultimately unsuccessful. He returned to Italy briefly and finally withdrew to Epirus in 274.

He acquired another army, mostly Gauls as mercenaries, and invaded Macedonia and temporarily drove Antigonus II Gonatas to the seacoast. But while plundering the countryside, his Gauls desecrated royal tombs at Aegae (modern Verghina) and enraged the local population. It was an opportune time for Pyrrhus to seek yet another opportunity for conquest, this time against Sparta, ostensibly aiding an exiled king. Sparta defended itself vigorously, and aid from Macedonia at the last minute caused Pyrrhus to withdraw. In the meantime, a faction in the city of Argos sought his aid; the other faction sought help from Antigonus.

During fierce fighting in the city, Pyrrhus was hit on the head by a roof tile thrown by an old woman who observed her son in danger from Pyrrhus. While he was stunned, a Macedonian soldier recognized him and attempted (sloppily) to cut off his head; the severed head was presented to Antigonus.

Pyrrhus’ soldiers admired him for his boldness and considerable combat skills, while rivals universally considered him one of the best generals who ever lived.

N.G.L. Hammond/Walbank, A History of Macedonia, vol. 3, 336-167 B.C., 1996, Greek Edition.